Richard Wagner is arguably the most significant musician from the last three hundred years, because he introduced the element of atonality into music, a radical departure for the times, and still. Take your pick of any Twentieth Century classical composer, Cage, Crumb, etc., or for that matter, popular music such as heavy metal and Phil Spector — they were all made possible by Wagner.

Wagner, a mini-series celebrating the life and times of Richard Wagner, was made at approximately the same time as Amadeus, a movie celebrating the life of Mozart. There the similarities end. Wagner is a true epic, movie as much about a turbulent time in Europe, but also about a composer who was as controversial as he was influential. He was not the benign, childlike, genius portrayed so brilliantly by Tom Hulcy in Amadeus. While there are occasional dark moments in Mozart’s music, Wagner’s music, especially the selections in this mini-series, is dark, foreboding, imbued with intense seriousness.

As is the movie itself. In life Richard Wagner was a rake, a rogue a spendthrift, constantly one step ahead of his creditors, bigoted, petty, conceited, a hypochondriac, rarely thought of anyone other than himself, a brute, troublemaker, a con man, a trickster, a rabble-rouser, a user of people, a megalomaniac possessed of radical politics, and constantly in debt and asking for money from his friends or anyone who happened to be in contact with him. Hardly an agreeable subject for a general release movie, which may account to why this movie failed to enjoy the same success as Amadeus.

As portrayed in the film, Wagner’s reputation, such that it was, preceded him, so he was a persona non grata rarely welcomed anywhere he went. As a result he created his own city, Bayreuth, a temple reserved to his music. So too, Richard Burton’s reputation as an actor, both off scene and on screen preceded him before the making of this film, so in many ways, he was the perfect actor to portray Wagner. It is a perfect fit. Richard Burton brilliantly portrays Wagner with all the worts he acquired through his own life and transposed them successfully to portray Wagner’s character. Burton always considered this the character he was born to portray, and he is correct. Burton conveys the dark foreboding of Wagner’s character with confidence and ease. This performance, matched with the serious intent that characterized Wagner’s music, is an experience to behold. This is Burton’s magnum opus performance.

Sir George Solti specially conducted the soundtrack for this mini-series, an entirely appropriate choice considering that he was a major trailblazer in recording of Wagner. Solti made the first modern recording of the Ring operas in the early 60s, still considered one of the finest recordings of Wagner’s music. Don’t believe some of the other reviews of this film. The use of Wagner’s music is both effective and tasteful.

While depicted as a conventional bio-pic, the performances at times have a stylized, improvised character. At moments, the camera will pan to a scene or to characters frozen in time, with Wagner’s music in the background. Some of these performances are almost campish. Rather than detract, these moments add to the movie and give the film a Felliniesque quality. Thankfully, the actor portraying Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria and Wagner’s greatest benefactor, could have been portrayed in this exaggerated manner; the actor’s portrayal, on the other hand, is subdued and thus closer the real man. The screen writer, Leonard Wood, worked in close corraboration with Wagner’s descendents. While this might have created the danger of a sanitized version of Wagner’s life and music, Burton portrays Wagner’s character with all its worts.

The length of the mini-series is daunting, nine hours, and like all true epics requires time and patience to view the work. It helps, of course, if the viewer is a lover of Wagner’s music, because this mini-series will put a face, no matter how unflattering that face may be, and context to the music. This movie is a testament to Wagner’s music and his life.

This movie is definitely a must-see for devotees of Wagner’s music. Due to the controversial nature of Wagner and his music, however, despite the undeniable merits of this film, it will unfortunately not gain the same wide acceptance as Amadeus, or any other movie for that matter.

By The Perapatetic Reader „The Reviewer Previous… (Fresno, California) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Wagner – The Complete Epic (DVD)

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